Hideyoshi’s elephant, 1597 | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Hideyoshi’s elephant, 1597

/ 01:44 AM October 10, 2014

A few years ago I wrote about Chulalongkorn’s elephants, bronze ones, gifted by the King of Siam to Java and Singapore as souvenirs of his visits in 1871. The Singapore elephant I met first because Rizal mentioned seeing it in Singapore. When I went to the Thai Embassy on Orchard Road I was directed to Arts House, close to the Asian Civilizations Museum and the patch of green near the river, where a bronze relief of Rizal commemorates his four visits to Singapore. The thought that Rizal and I looked at the same elephant a century apart formed a historical connection, thanks to the other one outside the National Museum in Jakarta that showed me how history can sometimes connect rather than divide.

I don’t know what it is about elephants, but they do appear in Philippine history from the prehistoric dwarf type whose scientific name, elephas beyeri, honors H. Otley Beyer, the so-called “Father of Philippine Anthropology,” to another that was sent to Hideyoshi of Japan by the Spanish governor-general of the Philippines in 1597 to smooth strained relations following the crucifixion of Franciscans from Manila in Nagasaki. The fleeting reference to Hideyoshi’s elephant in the 55-volume compilation of documents by Blair and Robertson was not enough for a column, but then while researching on the Martyrs of Nagasaki I chanced upon Bernardino Avila Giron’s account of a Japanese reception to the elephant in August 1597. The document translated from the original Spanish by Michael Cooper is in “They came to Japan: An anthology of European Reports in Japan, 1543-1640” (University of California Press, 1965).


Governor-General Francisco Tello sent from Spanish Manila an assortment of gifts that included his portrait and an elephant through an embassy led by Captain Don Luis de Navarette Fajardo, who arrived in Japan in August 1597. They were granted an audience by Hideyoshi in Osaka castle, and this is what happened:

“Before everything else they put the elephant in the street. Such an animal had never been seen before in Japan, for although it is true that the King of Cambodia had sent one many years previously to the Dono of Bungo, Don Francisco, it had soon died and had been seen only in a few of his fiefs. So many people came to look at this elephant that not even blows with cudgels could disperse them and many of the king’s servants, aided by a hundred men wielding clubs, had to clear the way, and several deaths resulted.


“When they arrived at the castle, the governors Jibunsho and Genni Hoin, and other nobles, came to the gate to greet Don Luis, who was suffering from dysentery and had become very weak. They all went into the castle and entered the first chamber, whither came Hideyoshi, holding the hand of his six-year-old son, Hideyori, in order to see the elephant. Don Luis, Diego de Sousa and their four attendants went towards him and saluted him in our fashion by bowing three times and remaining standing. The king returned the compliment and spoke to the ambassador with much kindness. He asked Lorenzo, the interpreter, which of them was Diego de Sousa? When he was told, he spoke to him as well and said that they were very welcome.

“He continued walking to the place where the elephant was standing, and when the animal saw him coming, it went down on its knees at the command of Cornaca and raising its trunk above its head it trumpeted loudly. The king was much astonished and asked Lorenzo, what was that? He answered that it had recognized His Highness and had thus saluted him. The king was filled with wonder and asked if it had a name? They said that it was called Don Pedro. He went nearer the animal, but remained in the zashiki without stepping down on the ground; and he called out twice, ‘Don Pedro, Don Pedro,’ and the animal again saluted him in the same way. This so pleased Hideyoshi that he said, ‘O sate, sate, sate,’ and clapped his hands quickly many times. All the lords of Japan were present (save those who were in Korea) and not one of them remained standing but all were seated with their heads bowed low.

“He asked what it [ate] and they told him that it [ate] anything it was given. Then they brought out two dishes of melons and peaches, and he himself took one and gave it to the animal. The elephant took hold of it with its trunk and raised it above his head (the Japanese observe the very same act of politeness) and then [ate] it. Then the rest of the fruit was placed in front of it and it [ate] the melons and peaches forthwith without spitting out the pips and stones. The king could not look at the elephant long enough nor hear enough about the intelligence which, they said, such an ugly animal possessed.”

The stampede over Don Pedro reminded me of the “Wowowee” tragedy some years back. The kneeling elephant was trained like the kneeling carabaos of Pulilan. We do not know what became of Don Pedro because documents in the Jesuit Archives in Rome show that Hideyoshi actually wanted a white elephant for his private zoo as early as 1583. He did not hide his disappointment with Don Pedro in a thank-you note to Navarette that reads: “Thank you for the black elephant. Last year the Chinese promised to send me a white elephant.” That remark reminded me of papaya soap and skin whiteners.

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TAGS: “Father of Philippine Anthropology, ” Hideyoshi of Japan, Arts House, Asian Civilizations Museum, Chulalongkorn, Diego de Sousa, elephants, elephas beyeri, H. Otley Beyer, History, Java, King of Siam, Orchard Road, Philippine history, Singapore, Thai Embassy
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